Nablus in April

Pamela Olson
23 May 2005

On April Fools’ morning, 2005, I headed to Nablus to visit Dan, an English guy who volunteered with us in Ramallah for a while.

Nablus is in the heart of the northern West Bank, and the drive up was as beautiful as expected in the green Holy Land spring.

Except, of course, for the depressing presence of the ubiquitous illegal pre-fab Israeli settlements, all built on someone’s bulldozed dreams.

My service taxi didn’t hit any checkpoints all the way up to Huwara checkpoint, the infamous bottleneck about six kilometers south of Nablus where thousands of people every day are searched and questioned and (if they’re lucky) herded single file through revolving metal doors, usually while having loaded M-16s pointed at them.

Nablus is entirely surrounded by checkpoints, and Huwara is the busiest. Some of the worst abuses have happened there, and it sounded like a hellish place.

I was surprised to find the nightmare nestled in a broad green valley. I expected it to be blasted earth like the lunar landscape surrounding the massive Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. I guess Qalandia’s supposed to be turned into an international border (ten kilometers north of the actual border) at some point while Huwara, smack in the middle of the northern West Bank, might eventually, theoretically, be abandoned.

I walked toward it, eager to see the town and my friends and enjoy Nablus’ signature dessert.

I didn’t even make it past the pre-checkpoint station before a soldier called me out. He asked where I was from. I said America. He said dismissively, “You can’t pass.”

“Why not?”

“No Americans allowed.”

This sounded suspiciously like bollocks to me. “My friend who’s American passed just the other day, no problem,” I lied. My friend was actually British, but what did it matter?

“Sorry, it’s rules.”

I argued a bit more and asked if there was someone I could talk to, like the DCO. He said, “Yeah, the DCO will be here in... thirty minutes.”

This was probably bollocks, too. The District Coordinating Officer, a mythical beast that is supposed to coordinate movement in the Palestinian territories when no one else knows what to do, or if you want to contest a seemingly arbitrary denial of passage, never shows up. People have waited hours, days.

Thirty minutes? He probably made that up. An hour later, he'd ask me to wait another half hour. Then another hour later, oops, the DCO already left for today. Come back tomorrow.

It’s one of their many tactics to stall people to death without actually being confrontational. I had no heart to wait around and find out if the typical scenario would play itself out. Maddening doesn't begin to convey it. That feeling of being simultaneously choked and bulldozed.

Like so many weekend plans before, this one looked like the whim of a power-drunk soldier was going to send it down the crapper. Who knew if this was actually policy or not? Or even if it was policy, what gave them the right to make it, to deny me passage to visit friends in a city that wasn't theirs?

Part of what being under occupation means is that every time some kid (or official) feels like playing Army Commando (or if it’s a Jewish holiday), anyone's plans (or life) can be offhandedly destroyed. The rules are often arbitrary, contradictory, and/or contrary to international law and human decency. Rules are often 'unofficial' or 'unwritten' and can change without notice from day to day, hour to hour.

But even if you know the rules in a given situation, and the soldiers are clearly breaking them, there’s usually no recourse, no one to complain to. They are the law.

A few weeks ago Dr. Mustafa had plans in Gaza to meet other Palestinian leaders and representatives, participate in the opening of a new medical center in Jabaliya Refugee Camp, and give a lecture at the Red Crescent Society. He had gone through the painstaking process of applying for and receiving a permit from the Israelis to do all of this.

But, the soldiers at the checkpoint into Gaza told him no. Just like that. So he had to turn around and go home.

I have no idea how people, mothers and students and professional people with things to do, put up with this kind of thing for decades at a time. I begin to understand why people risk their lives to sneak around checkpoints just so they can get on with life.

But if we were the kind of people to take no for an answer, we’d have been out of here long ago.

I called my friend in Nablus. He was nonplussed. “Go up to Beit Iba. They’ll probably let you through. That guy was just talking bollocks.”

I tried to find a taxi, but it would cost $15 to get to Nablus's western checkpoint near the village of Beit Iba. $15 is more than an average day's budget for me.

I hate to think how much money of mine has been wasted by soldiers and border guards forcing me to take longer than necessary routes or detaining me until there's no more public transport. I wasn't in the mood to let them do it again. I called him back.

“No worries,” he said. “My friend Nick says you can meet us in [a village nearby, let's call it Rami] and we can walk over the mountains [to bypass the checkpoints]. He fancies a walk anyway.”

A cab dropped me off on the side of a hill above Rami near a dirt path. The view of the hillsides across the valley was spectacular -- a crazy quilt of cultivated land spreading out in silky greens on the steep, convoluted landscape. Something like Tuscany, but more lush and green. Switzerland maybe, minus the snowy white peaks towering above.

I sat down between a couple of houses to enjoy it and wait for the boys. I felt awkward as an ajnabiyya (foreign chick) with no apparent business squatting on a remote bit of private property. But a family soon invited me in.

I was given a place of honor on the porch, and I talked to the kids and the father for a while, asked the usual questions and paid the usual compliments about the nice home and the beautiful land and the cute babies. I asked about the illegal Israeli settlements visible on hilltops on either side of the gorgeous valley. The father said that one was called Bracha and the other Yitzhar.

My eyes widened. A lot of the worst settler terrorist attacks come from Yitzhar: beating up kids and old people, throwing stones at houses and cars, hit and run attacks on children (including a settler who ran his car over three young girls in a village nearby last fall, breaking their bones and teeth, and then sped off), destroying trees and greenhouses, poisoning fields and stuffing dead animals down drinking wells, even cold-blooded murder. And the settlers enjoy near-immunity for their crimes. If a claim against them is investigated at all, it usually results in little more than a slap on the wrist. The jolly father’s face darkened when he looked up there.

I said in Arabic, “The people from Yitzhar are crazy, huh.”

He said, “Kul Isra'ili majanin.”

We entertained each other, about six adults and fifteen kids (it seemed to be a small family reunion), until an almost gratuitously massive load of maglubeh was plopped down on the table in front of us, upside down on a platter with the rice spilling down the sides like an avalanche. We ate it along with maftoul, salad, soup, and yogurt until we couldn’t eat another bite, and there were massive leftovers.

The hospitality here never ceases to amaze. When people ask me to describe Palestine, sometimes I say, “If you ask for directions, you get invited to dinner.” This time I didn’t even have to ask for directions.

The boys arrived from Nablus just as we were washing up, and I thanked the family for the wonderful meal and company and said goodbye. We started up the steep mountain path, and as we topped the first ridge the view of the Rami hillside retreated.

But then an even more astounding view opened up in front of us: a village built on a cultivated hill that was sheared away into a cliff on one side -- a scene as grand and lush as a medieval Scottish castle but more inviting and alive.

For a land as small as the West Bank, there are an amazing number of unexpected treasures packed away in thousands of nooks and crevices. With so few proper maps or travelers, you don't have to go far off the beaten path to feel like you're exploring a 10,000 year old undiscovered country.

We took a breather and chatted on a stone wall overlooking the valley and the town. Nick said that the last time he entered Israel, they pulled the same “Sorry, we’re out of paper” trick on him as an excuse not to give him a proper visa stamp. Luckily he has a plane ticket with current security stickers on it as proof of legal entry, so he's not quite as screwed as I was.

There was some danger that soldiers would find us even here. Military bases and settlements are everywhere, and they have state-of-the-art observation towers that can see just about everything. We walked quickly after we left our little wall.

The Bracha settlement was somewhere on our right, and we veered far to the left to avoid a hilltop checkpoint near the settlement that's occasionally manned by soldiers.

I felt jubilant, though. In your face, jeish! (That’s Arabic for soldier.) Tell me I can't go to Nablus? Well, here we are. The roads may belong to you, but we still have [small parts of] the mountains [on some days, if we're lucky].

Stick that in your gun and shoot it.

It was novel and kind of exciting to feel like fugitives from laws we didn't recognize as legitimate, like the Von Trapp family fleeing into Switzerland from occupied Austria. The Alpine-ish landscape added to the effect, and Julie Andrews songs crept incongruously into my head. “The hills are alive... with the sound of Uzis...”

If we’d been caught, though, the funny would have run out real quick.

People sometimes ask why Palestinians don't have more compelling and irrefutable video footage of Israeli abuses and war crimes. First of all, there's plenty of compelling if not conclusive footage of Israeli crimes. I’ve seen more horrific videos and pictures than I can count of journalists shot between the eyes, entire apartment blocks being dynamited, children who’d been gunned down with live ammo at peaceful protests, our office being occupied and sacked in 2002, our hard drives stolen, walls graffitied, copy machines pissed on and ruined, documents burned, furniture broken... But they don't get much play in the Western media. And the Israeli lobby and media are amazingly good at downplaying and/or casting doubt upon the credibility of bad press.

Second, aside from at least four cameramen who've been shot by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories that I can name off the top of my head, and more stories than I can count of erased/stolen/destroyed cameras/laptops/tapes/documents at Israeli borders, I'd like to see a CNN cameraman (most of whom seem to live in Tel Aviv) climbing over that hill when Israel closes all the checkpoints surrounding Nablus and invades.

It’s easy to have a few good photos of war crimes, but harder to prove it’s systematic. Usually, e.g. in the case of the Khmer Rouge genocide, by the time the evidence is irrefutable, it's too late to stop the worst excesses. (See Samantha Power's book "A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide".) Or, if we or our strategic allies are the ones committing the crimes, we simply fail to inform our loyal embedded journalists.

In an enlightened democratic state like ours, in the rare instances that irrefutable evidence of our crimes does come to light in a reasonably timely manner (like Abu Ghraib), and enough people make a big enough fuss, a few lower-ranking grunts might get a slap on the wrist, or even indicted, and everyone goes home feeling like justice was served.

Meanwhile, often as not, the Rumsfelds of the world keep their positions of power and the systematic abuses continue.

In the case of the Israeli commander Captain R, who shot a 13-year-old girl in Gaza and then unloaded his whole clip at her at close range to “confirm the kill”, he was only indicted on two counts of illegal use of weapons, obstruction of justice (for his initial false report), behavior unbecoming an officer, and the improper use of authority that endangered others. Note the conspicuous lack of the charge of MURDER.

Just a couple of weeks ago, two more teenagers were killed by Israeli soldiers with live ammunition at an unarmed protest against the Apartheid Wall in Beit Liqya, near Ramallah. The soldiers claimed, as usual, that their lives were in danger and that they aimed only for the lower bodies. Israeli soldiers must have extraordinarily flimsy tanks, Jeeps, and flak jackets and must also be stunningly bad shots.

More on the chutzpah front: the defense lawyer of a Bedouin Israeli soldier who shot and killed British student and photographer Tom Hurndall defended his client by claiming that Tom died not from the Israeli bullet to his head, but due to the incompetence of the doctors in Britain who oversaw his comatose body for the nine months he spent in a vegetative state before he died!*

* * *

The boys and I walked down into the valley and over another mountain. As we topped the next ridge, the full view of Nablus opened up in front of us, nestled in its enormous green valley and built of indigenous white stone.

Nablus, known as the Uncrowned Queen of Palestine, has a reputation both as a proud and beautiful economic and cultural center and as a besieged and miserable penal colony due to its tendency toward resisting oppression and the consequent scope of closure and brutality it’s been subjected to under occupation.

From up on the hill it looked the picture of well-ordered serenity, except for the massive menacing blight of an Israeli military base built on one of the hills overlooking it like a despised overlord.

The city was built in 72 A.D. about a mile west of the ruins of ancient Biblical town of Shechem by the Roman general Titus (later emperor) and dubbed Flavia Neapolis -- Flavia after the emperor Vespasian and Neapolis meaning "new city". Titus populated it with retired Roman veterans, and Christians and Samaritans also lived and flourished there, and some of their descendants live there still today. When the Arabs took over in 636 A.D., with their chronic lack of the letter 'p', the name took on its present form.

We scrambled down the steep hillside and made our way to the Old City. It was nearly evening by now and the boys, who hadn’t enjoyed a massive hilltop home-cooked meal like I had, were starving. We walked to an upstairs café in a schmancy hotel, the Yasmina, which was still cheaper than even the midrange restaurants in Ramallah.

A lovely stained-glass window decorated the front of the hotel. It featured a mosque whose clear aquamarine dome had been shot cleanly through by a single bullet. The image is a small but powerful monument to the everyday hatred and violence that occupy this city. Yet it was strangely beautiful and evocative of hope, of rising above meanness and ugliness.

The window was damaged wantonly by what I imagine to be brainwashed children consumed by fear and hatred and drunk on brute physical power. But it's still there and strong and beautiful, seeming to smile beatifically and ironically, the cracks in the limpid glass around the bullet hole catching the sun prettily.

You can shoot all you want, it says. You’ll hurt us, you’ll damage and try to ruin us, but you won’t succeed. In the end we’ll still be here, and when you finally leave or chill out, we’ll heal. But what can save you from your intolerance and blindness, your greed and violence? What will save your children from the images they have of treating human beings like dogs and worse?

In most ways that matter, we’ve already won. It’s just a matter of time before you’ll have to come to terms with that.

Come to think of it, maybe I’ve been here too long if I heard a stained-glass window say all that.

Nick and Dan and I introduced ourselves more properly over sodas and hummous and nargila in comfy chairs on a glass-walled catwalk. Nick turned out to be an Australian law student who hates lawyers and can’t stand law firms. “I just like law.” His dream, I gathered, is to travel all over slapping world leaders around with their own law books.

They told a few stories of late-night shoot-ups in the Old City, the neighborhood kids who always wanted the ajanib (foreigners) to entertain them, and the neighborhood militants who would probably shoot out their kneecaps if they brought any girls into their houses and did inappropriate things.

I said I hoped I didn’t happen to meet the soldier who had refused me entry into Nablus while I was inside Nablus.

Nick said, “Yeah, that would be bad news.”

I said, “Yeah, it WOULD be bad news.” I punch my right fist into my left palm. “For HIM.” We laughed.

We wandered around the Old City, one of the most spectacular and intact in the Middle East, although vast sections of it have been obliterated by Israeli bombs, rockets, and bulldozers, including an ancient soap factory. We stopped to have some kunafa Nablusiyya, the sweet cheesy dessert that takes its name from the city.

Weeks later I looked at a Palestinian journalist’s photo album that showed terrible images of Israeli invasions, terrorist bombings of residential areas, and murders. It brought home to me the fact that I really have no idea what occupation means even though I’ve been living under it for nearly a year. Ramallah has its history of murder and invasion, hauntingly depicted in a photo display in the entrance to my office. But the incursions here are far less frequent and violent, especially these days, and the aura of that time has been put behind us for the most part -- although there is a distant giddy sense that we're living on borrowed time. If Sharon keeps up what he's doing, a Third Intifada is assured.

In Nablus on the other hand, even on peaceful spring days, the specter of death and violence almost tangibly haunts the minds and hallways of the town. Unspeakable things have happened and keep happening here, and life -- dimmed, scarred, hardened -- goes on, waiting for a chance to bloom again, for peace and humanity to overcome the degradation and helpless rage and unhealthy fixations brought about by the neverending attacks and constant humiliations of the depraved Occupation machine.

* * *

Later we went to another upstairs café, where we had strawberry juice and met a Chilean Palestinian woman named Nadia who looked 100% Palestinian and talked, acted, and dressed 100% Latin American.

It’s strange to see diaspora Palestinians come back, being so much a part of this land, and so in love with it. And yet their host society is indelibly implanted over the Palestinian core. They possess the ethos of Palestine, but the local customs, especially those developed under the hardships of occupations, and sometimes even the Arabic language, are foreign to them.

Someone recently wrote to an e-mail list I’m on about the Right of Return:

    "Next Year in Jerusalem",
    David and Goliath,
    Right of Return,
    The Promised Land,
    and Exile...

    are now Palestinian words...
    since 57 years!!!

A man from Beit Hanina, north of Jerusalem, who is now living in Detroit, wrote to the list about how his family ate bitter herbs (wild zaatar, or thyme) and unleavened bread during their exodus to Jordan in 1967. They never had time to let their bread rise, either, before the Israeli army would be there, chasing them down.

And now, to add insult & injury to injury & insult, the Wall through Beit Hanina is literally cutting it in two as well as isolating it into a Walled ghetto. Israel, of course, will relieve the centuries-old town of its best land.

As a writer I admire once said, “History doesn’t just repeat itself – sometimes it positively regurgitates itself.”

* * *

I needed to go to a couple of holy sites for an entry I’m writing for a revisionist encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Luckily they were both very close to each other and also very close to the Balata Refugee Camp.

Dan and I took a cab there, but the Church of Jacob’s Well was closed. So we went to hunt for Joseph’s Tomb instead.

I asked a couple of Palestinians for directions, and they said not to bother because it wasn’t really interesting. One said Joseph was not a real prophet, and another said Joseph was probably buried in Egypt somewhere. But we persisted, and they directed us to it.

Joseph, of Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame (not the step-father of Jesus as I’d originally thought), was the favored son born of the favorite wife (Rachel) of Jacob, patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. All the other kids were born of Leah, the younger sister of Rachel, and Leah and Rachel's maidservants.

Joseph’s brothers were so jealous of him and his egocentric dreams and his favored status that they sold him into slavery in Egypt and dipped his “favorite son” coat in goat’s blood to make it look like he’d been devoured by wild animals. Jacob, Joseph's dad, the same guy who allegedly wrestled with God and had his named changed to Israel, was devastated by the loss of his favorite son but never caught on to the deception.

Joseph ended up a favored son of Egypt itself, the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Years later, his whole family had to move from Canaan to Egypt to escape an epic famine. As the story goes, Joseph’s the one that saved Egypt from the same famine and, as his dreams had prophesied, his whole family now had to bow before him.

The family stayed on in Egypt, but after a while the descendants of Jacob got antsy because the Pharaoh was making them work too hard and not allowing them enough self-determination. So God brought a dozen terrifying plagues on the Egyptians via Moses to make life so unlivable for Egyptians that they'd have to "let [his] people go". A Jewish friend of mine notes that God acts as a terrorist in this chapter, targeting innocent Egyptian civilians for the political liberation of his people. (I wonder if his agents of Jewish liberation called themselves the JLO?)

Then Moses dragged the Israelites (or Jacobites) out to the Sinai. They spent about forty years spliffing it up with the Bedouin (that’s my personal interpretation anyway, having been to the Sinai myself), and then emerged to conquer the land of Canaan.

Then came Romans and Jesus and Arabs and Turks and British and so on.

Now, if Joseph had indeed requested that his bones be moved back to the land of Canaan once the Israelites had conquered it, which was long after he died a very rich man in Egypt, that would make it seem like he knew that the Promised Land would be Israel someday, and it would fit very neatly into the Israeli narrative.

Obviously, that still wouldn’t mean bollocks when it comes to modern geopolitics and property rights unless one is a literalist religious fanatic or willing to use religious fanaticism to promote political aims.

OK, so according to some scrolls written centuries after the fact, the Jews had control of parts of the land of Canaan/Israel/Palestine for a relatively short period of history. But there’s even more compelling historical and archaeological evidence that the Romans, Babylonians, and Persians did, too. Not to mention the Arabs and Turks. (And who were those Canaanites anyway? Where did they go?) Every one of these peoples probably thought God gave it to them, too.

Let's take it as a given that a certain shade of the tribes of Abraham conquered the land of Canaan at one point more than 2000 years ago. And Genghis Khan conquered most of central Asia some time back. And the British occupied Iraq for a while in the early 20th century. But does that mean we should hand Afghanistan "back" to Mongolia, or that Britain should invade and occupy Iraq agai... uh, nevermind.

Seriously. If we consistently used ancient texts and old conquests as property deeds, I'm sure some pissed-off Trojans would turn up before long demanding Gallipoli. The Japanese Shintoists believed they were the divine chosen people, but their God must have been angry with them, seeing as they didn't manage to keep China very long. I have a Saudi friend who believes that the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Arabs (who also consider themselves sons of Abraham) and the erection of the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount are fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy.

The point is, this kind of reasoning is no way to solve land disputes. Here’s a novel idea – why don’t we use property deeds as property deeds? A lot of Palestinians have fairly irrefutable property deeds to lands now buried under Israeli national parks, and Israelis don't even bother to reasonably dispute this.

An Israeli travel brochure says that Canada Park, northwest of Jerusalem, was built on the ruins of three “abandoned” Arab villages. I invite you to ask the refugees from these villages how and why they lost their homes. And a monastery in central Israel, when describing its history, says that “in 1948, because of the war between the Arabs and the Jews, hundreds of Arab villages disappeared...” Just like that. Poof!

The Jews had a homeland some thousand years ago. The Palestinians had a homeland 57 years ago, and many have valid property deeds in their dresser drawers. (And then there's the matter of the Palestinians whose land is being stolen in the West Bank as we speak...) I respect the Jews' longing for a homeland, but they likewise should respect that same longing in the Palestinians -- a longing backed up solidly by international law for a land which was demonstrably stolen from them.

But the powerful will use whatever excuse they can to do whatever they want to do. That’s how it’s always worked.

Back to Joseph's Tomb: Despite it being in the middle of Nablus, Israel claimed it as their own sovereign territory. Their property deed was none other than the Old Testament. (Most of the ideological settlers will tell you the same about their various settlements built on Palestinian private property.)

Israeli defense ministers admitted that the supposed religious connotations were used merely as an excuse to hold onto this “bone in the throat” of Palestine.

The tomb used to be a reverential squat little whitewashed stone Ottoman building with a dome over the tomb. The Israelis started using it as a fortified military base/yeshiva (Jewish religious school) in the 1980’s, even though archaeological evidence is patchy at best. It’s just as likely the tomb of some Muslim sheikh named Yusif.

In any case, Israel maintained the site even after 1995, when Nablus was given over to nominal Palestinian Authority control. Judging from my experience with settlers, I'd be willing to bet they weren’t the most respectful of neighbors. Having a military base full of settlers (potent symbols and actors of dispossession and occupation) right next to a refugee camp (some of the most dispossessed and oppressed people in the Territories) was a recipe for certain disaster.

Violent clashes broke out around the tomb in October 2000, in which six Palestinians and one Israeli were killed. When the Israelis finally retreated under fire, the army outpost and the little tomb shelter were sacked by the Palestinians, probably just for the sake of it but also to keep the Israelis from coming back.

Coming upon it now, tucked away in a back alley of a poor residential area near a refugee camp, it was a burned, blown-up, neglected ruin, a monument to the depravity and insanity of occupation. The top of the dome had been blown off, the walls were black with soot, and the grave monument itself had been reduced to rubble. The tiny grounds were overgrown, and even some of the stairs were smashed. The destruction of the place had apparently been orgiastic, and while understandable, it seemed a pity. It would have been a nice place for pilgrimage and reflection, no matter who’s buried there.

But the ugly reality of occupation long ago obliterated any holiness and serenity it might have possessed. Its use as a strategic military base (from which brutal incursions were almost certainly launched into Nablus and the camps), and the despicably cynical use of feverish religious fanatics crazy enough to risk their lives and the lives of the soldiers to claim it, had desecrated it before the Palestinians ever set foot in it.

As we were walking away from the ruin, Dan pointed out something on top of a hill, and I wiped my eyes in disbelief. Perched on one of the high hills surrounding Nablus was... something enormous like an Acropolis, or the pagan temples at Baalbek, clearly of Roman design, with columns and a dome, but... faintly pink, shiningly new, and clearly lived in. It wasn’t a ruin. It was someone’s house.

Dan said, “The richest Palestinian in the world built that. He’s off in a yacht in the Mediterranean somewhere. Imported all that Italian marble.”

We still had a couple of hours to kill before the church opened, so we hailed a cab and asked it to take us up to the palace on the hill. At first he tried to take us to the Palace Hotel, but we said, “La, mish al-funduq, al-qasr. Fouq, 'ala tel.”

He caught our drift and drove us up winding streets to the hilltop mansion. We reached the gates of the property, which were open, and to my utter shock, he drove right through. We motored up the driveway and into the backyard. There was a small Versailles-type fountain in back, and astounding views of the hills around Nablus and the green valley hinterlands spreading out toward Huwara.

“Guys, guys, guys,” we heard someone say as he emerged from a car parked under a cavelike garage. “No pictures please. I am very sorry, but this is private property.”

I was embarrassed to be caught trespassing, but the cab driver just shrugged cheerfully. The estate manager said we could enjoy the views as we liked as long as we didn’t take pictures. He kept apologizing, which I thought was taking the hospitality factor to radical extremes. Anywhere else, he’d simply have released the hounds.

* * *

The gate to the church grounds was still locked by the time we made our way back down. We found a buzzer, and soon the gate swung quietly inward. We were greeted by a Palestinian man who walked silently down to the front of the church and opened the doors for us.

The church would not have been out of place in Paris or Florence, except that it was so new. Two tall, graceful bell towers flanked the entryway, the ceiling rose majestically overhead to a larger-than-life portrait of Christ, and paintings and stained-glass covered the walls leading up to a beautiful altar. One painting depicted a naked man being hung upside down by a spike through his ankles and skinned alive, a halo under his beatific head. Weird.

The floor was of dirt and gravel and had no pews. I thought maybe this was a way to be closer to the earth, or humble yourself before God. But it turned out they’d just run out of funds. The Greek Orthodox priest was currently in Europe soliciting for floor cash.

We asked the caretaker a few questions about the church, and he said of course there were not many visitors these days due to “the situation”, but next week an Italian group was coming through, and in general a couple of people trickled in every couple of weeks.

The real treasure was below the altar, down a small, low stone staircase to the well chamber. There's a particularly nice passage in the New Testament where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at this very well and asks her for a drink.

"Now he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, 'Will you give me a drink?'

The Samaritan woman said to him, 'You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?' (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.'

'Sir,' the woman said, 'you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?'

Jesus answered, 'Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.'" (John 4:4-14)

(In case you're wondering, I think the Bible's an amazing and sometimes beautiful document. So's the Odyssey. But I don't take it literally or base my political views on it. See GodHatesShrimp.com)

A bucket of the holy water had been drawn from the deep well, and the groundskeeper allowed us a cool swallow. He demonstrated the depth by pouring a cup of water down the well, and we waited several impressive seconds before it hit the surface below.

I couldn't help but contrast the destroyed and despised holy site of Joseph's Tomb, administered by Israeli settlers and soldiers, with the respected and tolerated holy site of Jacob’s Well, administered by the Greek Orthodox Church. Both are European non-Muslim presences in the midst of an overwhelmingly Arab Muslim town. But the Jewish settlers had come as arrogant conquerors and oppressors, while the Christians had come as respectful neighbors.

Here's the essential difference: if some Zeus worshippers came and purchased a small bit of Stromboli, claiming it belonged to the patriarch Odysseus, and lived in peace and harmony with their neighbors according to Italian law, who would complain? But if militant Zeusists stormed in, implanted their own laws, acted like anyone who didn't follow their laws was sub-human, violently kicked everyone out of their homes and property, and used Stromboli as a base from which to invade neighboring Aeolian islands, I think the people of Stromboli, and Italy, and Europe for that matter, would be pretty miffed and alarmed.

The church has no problems even with the notoriously militant refugee camp just across the street. But, to bring it full circle, the church has had problems with the occupation in general, and especially with the settlers. I keep hearing fabricated or exaggerated reports of Christians in the Holy Land being oppressed by Muslims. Ask any Christian in the Territories how they’re being oppressed (I’ve asked several), and they’ll tell you the same thing (to paraphrase Clinton): It’s the occupation, stupid.

I noticed a small commemorative plaque dedicated to a priest who had been killed in the well chamber in 1979. A triptych showed the bearded, bespectacled Greek being bludgeoned and bloodied by a robed madman at the foot of the holy well.

The Palestinian caretaker said, “Yes, he was killed right here, and here it shows the settler who did it.”

“A settler did this?” I asked, stunned. I really shouldn’t have been, by now.

“Yes. A rabbi.”

“A rabbi offed a priest?” It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke.

Over and over I keep thinking I can’t be shocked anymore. This place never ceases to impress.

* * *

Dan and I did a quick loop around the Balata refugee camp, which was poor and cramped, but not as hellish on this beautiful day as I expected. The kids teased us a bit, and the older boys tossed a couple of good-natured expletives at us, more showing off their vocabulary than intending us any insult. We had a short conversation with a shopkeeper who’d dedicated his life to teaching and was now retired and running a small store.

If the recent memory of death and violence was apparent in Nablus, it was thick here. And yet when we looked around we just saw people, not fundamentally different from anyone else, going about their daily lives. Today it might be a crowded and poor but otherwise fairly normal village. Tonight it might be a killing field. An abyss awaits on all sides. But life, such as it is, goes on. It doesn't have much choice.

* * *

We walked around a bit more until the party started. Nadia, who was leaving Nablus soon for a new job in Jerusalem, was having a going away party. A local Palestinian man rounded up the food and booze (alcohol is pretty hard to come by in Nablus), and we went to a young Scottish professor’s house for the festivities.

There I got to know a Moroccan Berber documentarian and journalist from Germany and a guy with an accent somewhere between France and South Central L.A. who’s spent time in both places and claims to have been on a date with Halle Berry. He was another law student who hated lawyers and law firms. He's apparently working with a guy who occasionally represents Hamas. I wonder if he'll put that on his CV.

Dan and Nick and Nadia were there, and we all drank and chatted, about politics and repression, culture and travels, religion and the Pope (who died during the party), long into the night.


* The Palestine Monitor
A PNGO Information Clearinghouse


Israeli Lawyer Claims Tom Hurndall killed by British malpractice, not by Israeli gunfire to his head

23 May 2005

Tom Hurndall, a British peace activist, student, and photographer, was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier in April of 2003 as he was trying to protect Palestinian children from Israeli tanks and gunfire in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He later died of his wounds after lying comatose in a British hospital for nine months.

Yariv Ronen, the lawyer of the soldier who killed Hurndall, said that the soldier should be acquitted of manslaughter because, he claimed, Hurndall died not of the injuries inflicted by the soldier, but due to malpractice by British doctors.

Hurndall’s mother Jocelyn called the claims “outrageous,” noting that her son had the best medical care available.

In addition to manslaughter, the soldier has been charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, one count of submitting false testimony, one count of obtaining false testimony, and one count of unbecoming behavior.

The verdict is expected on June 26.

The soldier, a Bedouin, noted the racist nature of Israel’s policies regarding investigations into murders: “If I were [Jewish], I would have been freed a long time ago... [and] if [the victim] was a Palestinian [instead of a British national], the army would have closed the case a long time ago.”

Another soldier, Aymad Atawna, has already been sentenced to jail for lying to protect the accused soldier.

Atawna originally told investigators that Hurndall shot toward Israeli troops, but later confessed that he lied and Hurndall in fact was not armed. The court convicted him of inappropriate conduct and sentenced him to 5 1/2 months in prison.

Two other British nationals have been killed in the Palestinian territories by Israeli soldiers. Award-winning filmmaker James Miller, 34, was shot and killed in Rafah on May 1, 2003, while filming a documentary about the impact of violence on children.

54-year-old UN aid worker Iain Hook was also shot in the back and killed by an Israeli soldier (his colleagues and UN investigators believe he was assassinated in cold blood) on November 22, 2002, in the Jenin refugee camp.

These murders were never brought to justice, either. The soldiers who shot and killed them were only indicted for such minor charges as “breaking the rules of engagement” and “changing their story during the course of the investigation.”

In the more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, during which Israeli soldiers have killed hundreds of innocent, unarmed Palestinians and foreigners under highly suspicious circumstances, the Israeli military has investigated only a handful of soldiers for harming Palestinians or foreigners, of whom virtually none have been indicted for manslaughter or murder.

Jocelyn Hurndall said that while there was an investigation into her son’s death, she hoped the trial would result in a change.

She said, “There are thousands of people who don't have access to an investigation, and we are hoping that the outcome of this trial will mean that there will be more investigations for those who have been killed or wounded.”

The Palestine Monitor advises her not to hold her breath.

Next: Worst. Border crossing. Ever.

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